The new conventional wisdom among Middle East hands with lots of State Department postings on their c.v. is that trying to reach a two-state agreement is hopeless. Can’t be done, don’t try. Wait for a better time. Aaron David Miller laid out the case recently in the Jerusalem Post:
It’s not that there are metaphysical or magical reasons why these core issues can’t be resolved; it’s that the political will is lacking among leaders to reach an agreement and that the current situation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians makes it impossible for them to do to. That everyone knows what the ultimate solution will look like (an intriguing notion that is supposed to make people feel better) is irrelevant if the circumstances for an agreement don’t exist.
The Palestinians are too divided, and “there is serious dysfunction at the political level in Israel as well.” Therefore, Miller recommends to Barack Obama to “manage” the conflict:
…support an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, train PA security forces, pour economic aid into the West Bank and Gaza, even nurture Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the big issues, but don’t think you can solve it; you can’t.
I have great respect for Miller’s experience and expertise, and his argument is laid out as cogently as ever. But I have to dissent respectfully for three reasons:
First, political will is to a great extent a function of how politicians understand the public mood. Yes, politicians are supposed to lead. But often – to quote a Talmudic saying – “the face of the generation is like the face of a dog”: The dog seems to be running ahead of his master, but is always looking back to see which way to go. The mediocre pol reads the polls and adjusts what he, or she, thinks.
Public mood, however, is not static; it’s dynamic. The public is more supportive of peace moves, and more willing to make concessions, when more people believe that peace is possible. The job of anyone planning a diplomatic initiative includes public diplomacy: Efforts to alter the mood.
Second, the United States is not simply an observer of Palestinian politics. I don’t say this to relieve the Palestinians of responsibility for the corruption and infighting that culminated in the split between Fatah and Hamas, between the West Bank and Gaza. They’ve managed to achieve a failed state before independence. But as I outlined earlier this year, U.S. policy has served to deepen the divisions. The U.S. can continue to support the boycott of Hamas and the siege of Gaza, in which case the internal Palestinian divide will become ever harder to bridge. Or it can switch directions and support Palestinian unity talks, and show willingness to recognize a unity government under the correct conditions.
Simply “managing the conflict” will allow things to get worse on the Palestinian side. Likewise on the Israeli side. Miller lets Israel off too easy by not mentioning ongoing settlement construction. Let me say it again: Waiting means more settlements, which means less chance of a deal later.
Miller is right about the obstacles to an agreement now. But waiting means giving up. Things will not be easier tomorrow. If the new administration wants a window of opportunity, it should pry the window open immediately.